Espionage is said to be the world’s second-oldest profession, but the spy thriller as a genre is only as old as the professional intelligence services created by the modern nation-state. Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907) is considered the spy thriller’s foundational work, but spies have long appeared in literature, from the Bible’s Book of Joshua to Alexandre Dumas to Arthur Conan Doyle.
I’m by no means a connoisseur of the genre, yet I’m surprised that it took me as long as it did to discover its American master, Alan Furst. Though Furst has been making his living as a writer of spy fiction since the early 1980s, his is not a household name like that of John Le Carré, Ian Fleming, or Tom Clancy. None of Furst’s books have made it to the big screen, which is regrettable, since he is a first-rate craftsman of highly cinematic narratives. He is also simply a very good writer, whose sophisticated and richly imagined fiction often evokes Conrad, Graham Greene, and Arthur Koestler. Like those earlier writers, Furst has much to say about history and the human condition.
Probably the most relevant comparison here is with Le Carré, who has more or less defined the literary high end of the spy genre since The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963). (A good Le Carré retrospective can be found in the Winter 2016/17 issue of the Claremont Review of Books.) Le Carré did his best work during the Cold War, in the shadow of the Cambridge spy-ring disasters that shook the clubby, mid-century world of British intelligence. But his books are only obliquely about the Cold War. He isn’t interested in the meaning or significance of that conflict; rather, he is obsessed with what he sees as the moral ambiguity of espionage in the service of democracy—an activity that he seems to regard as vaguely pointless. His novels are character-driven and light on historical and political context, focusing instead on betrayal, alienation, and the uncertain motives of his characters—“half-devils versus half-angels,” as one puts it.
By contrast, Furst is quite interested in what happens when individuals, nations, and their clandestine services are tested under conditions of great stress, when the stakes are at their highest. His subject is European civilization on the eve of its self-immolation in the Second World War—not only the most destructive conflict in history but also one in which intelligence played an important strategic role. Furst’s Night Soldiers cycle, written between 1988 and 2016, consists of more than a dozen books, each a self-contained novel with its own particular geographical and political setting, but with overlapping characters and settings. Taken together, Night Soldiers forms a gorgeous, complex tableau of Old Europe and its various peoples slipping across the abyss of time.
Furst’s narratives are so rich in texture and detail that the effect is completely immersive. The books have a time-machine quality, transporting the reader fully into a particular time and place: a Bulgarian fishing village on the banks of the Danube; a French prison; an NKVD spy school in Moscow; the backstreets and alleys of Antwerp and Istanbul; Madrid under siege by Nationalist columns; and others. Always, Furst returns to Paris, a city he clearly loves. He has a sophisticated, tactile feel for the intellectual, ideological, and political currents of the period, and he weaves them into the novels, giving them a depth rarely found in the genre.
Unlike Fleming and Le Carré, Furst had no professional experience in espionage or its allied trades (other than journalism), which makes his books all the more remarkable. He is a writer, pure and simple, and he bears the mild manner of an Upper West Side New York intellectual, which is what he is. He relies on the traditional tools of the writer’s craft: skill with words, plot, characterization, imagination, and exhaustive research. The narratives rely heavily on the nuts and bolts of the spy’s tradecraft. Furst’s grasp of these technical details is thoroughly convincing, but he never lets the technical arcana get in the way of the human element. Even minor characters are three-dimensional, never descending into clichés.
Furst gets Russia right, or plausibly so. Westerners struggle to write convincing historical fiction involving Russia. Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer (1966) comes to mind as a rare exception, but most other attempts strike a cacophony of false notes, making such books hard to enjoy. Furst knows his subject, however. He understands, for example, that Stalin’s NKVD was more than a service for the collection of foreign intelligence—it was a lethal, clandestine army that sought to bring all of Europe under Soviet influence or domination. Dark Star (1991), the second book in the Night Soldiers cycle, is brilliant in depicting the mechanics of this project. In the series’ eponymous first novel (1988), Furst’s portrayal of the NKVD’s role in the brutal internecine warfare within the Republican side of the Spanish Civil War is equally compelling, owing much to Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. His grasp of the deadly politics of Stalin’s inner circle is remarkable, especially considering that the early Night Soldiers books were written before the opening of the Kremlin archives. The authenticity of Furst’s narratives is so persuasive that his occasional lapses stand out: a Russian word oddly transliterated; a Russian character celebrating Christmas on the Western calendar, instead of the Orthodox; NKVD officers driving around eastern Poland after the invasion in a sedan that was first produced only after the war.
It’s regrettable that Hollywood has not taken more interest in the Night Soldiers books. From Schindler’s List to Star Wars, the visual vocabulary of evil in our popular culture is dominated by Nazi imagery, a fact with considerable political implications. Americans believe—incorrectly—that they understand the threat from the political Right in part because those SS uniforms and the German stahlhelm are forever associated in the public imagination with right-wing depravity. But while we have access to a rich archive of photographic evidence of Nazi atrocities, whatever photographic evidence of Communist atrocities may exist is locked away in KGB vaults. No American GI ever liberated a KGB slave labor camp, and as a result, Communist evil remains fairly abstract for most Americans. Though the Bolsheviks paid as much attention to visual propaganda as did the Nazis, the iconography of the political Left hasn’t penetrated the American mind. Perhaps one in 100 Americans has heard the word “gulag”; probably not one in 10,000 has seen a photograph from the Gulag or could identify an OGPU officer by sight. In contrast to the sartorial flair of Hugo Boss’s Nazi uniforms, the Communist contribution to totalitarian fashion is the Che t-shirt, which makes the butcher of Havana look sexy and non-threatening. But Furst knows his Gulag literature and incorporates its imagery into his narratives. Bringing his novels to the big screen would help in the much-needed rebalancing of our moral balance sheet.
I wonder about the future of the spy genre in our digital, post-historical era. The essence of espionage is information—specifically, information about the capabilities and intentions of friends and adversaries. The mechanics of this trade has always been the bread and butter of the spy thriller. The whole first half of Le Carré’s masterpiece Smiley’s People, for example, turns on the physical transportation of a single incriminating frame of negative film across national frontiers by couriers, several of whom end up dead. That was the analog world of the Cold War. Our digital world, in which the contents of the Library of Congress can be encrypted and transmitted across the globe with the touch of a key, is far less dramatic and does not lend itself as easily to romance. Kim Philby spent the better part of two decades transcribing the crown jewels of British and American intelligence secrets by hand and turning them over to the KGB. As current headlines attest, a single computer hack or anonymous leak today can yield a far bigger cache of secrets. Do spies still use dead drops? Brush passes? Microdots? Invisible ink? Do they still meet their contacts in smoky cafes and secluded parks? Many of these gritty noir devices may have been retired and replaced by banks of computer screens in the sub-basements of Northern Virginia office parks. All of which makes the spy genre poorer and more antiseptic. We are left with stylish but vapid movies about superheroes like Jason Bourne, pursued by cartoonish CIA assassins.
The digital world also changes our perceptions of political crime, of which espionage is a sub-species. Without the physical Watergate break-in and the amateur-hour rifling through DNC file cabinets, there would have been no scandal. In contrast, the political scandals of the last election cycle seem mired in the geek-squad arcana of passwords, servers, and hard drives. They lack the visceral physicality of Watergate, which is why they are unlikely to amount to much, despite the wishes of political partisans.
The passing of the Cold War era has also been bad for the spy genre. Despite Le Carré’s obsession with the alleged ambiguity of the Cold War, that conflict served as a moral anchor for his books. When it ended, Le Carré became unmoored, descending disappointingly into traditional upper-class British distaste for commerce and the Yanks.
The second-oldest profession will probably remain with us as long as sovereign states exist. But we suffer from a great historical amnesia: an entire generation has grown up without any understanding of what the great ideological conflicts of the twentieth century were about. Mention the Cold War to them, and you might as well be talking about the War of Jenkins’ Ear. We are fortunate to have Alan Furst to bring the struggles of our receding past vividly to life.
Photo by Central Press